I first read Globish: How English Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum as a required course book for a History of the English Language class a few years ago. This course was required for my degree, but I would have taken it anyway. I’m completely fascinated by historical linguistics: the merging, melding, and separation of languages, the paths they take through the world, and what this tells us about historical events and human nature. It’s intriguing stuff.
My excitement for the class, though, was a stark contrast to the disappointment I felt with this book. I’m still trying to determine whether it stemmed from a mismatch of expectations – since I was simply expecting something with more information about the mechanics of the language – or whether it was the content, so I read it again. I’ve found that I’ve come to many of the same conclusions.
One of my major issues with the book is that it touches on a great many historical issues that have likely affected the current incarnation of English, but doesn’t go in-depth on much of anything. Many of the chapters feel almost list-like: the printing press had an effect on English because of these people and books, these speeches in 19th century America were important and so was the emphasis on spelling and memorization in early American schools, etc. There is a workable amount of detail in some of these entries and none in others. In quite a few places it feels more like a simple chronology than anything else.
It also lacks a lot of the mechanical details I was expecting, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I’m not overly pedantic for expecting them. For example, when discussing the Norse influence on English, the author mentions that English grammar was influenced, but it really doesn’t go into detail on what parts of grammar were influenced or how. These details are important to the ability to speak knowledgeably on the subject. It would be like an astronomer saying that we know what Pluto looks like now, but without being able to describe it or provide any of the New Horizons’ images. Nor did it provide evidence of these grammatical influences. This was another issue for me; the lack of detail extended to lack of evidence, and a scholarly work requires evidence.
The most frustrating issue, though, was that I ended up arguing with a classmate on a forum about whether English was special and in some way structurally superior to other languages. She had gotten the impression from the book that the structure of the language (rather than world events, a fortuitous location, and modern transportation and communication capabilities) had made it somehow especially suited to being adopted and adapted into the language we know now. This is really not the case. Other languages have undergone the same process at other points in history. Persian, for example, though it lacked the benefit of modern technology in increasing its reach, once went through a very similar advance and evolution. I was dismayed to learn that other students had received a similar impression, and I can see how that conclusion can be drawn from the book. It was disappointing to have information presented that was so at odds with the principles of linguistic change and history, causing students to completely misunderstand ideas that should have been a part of the foundation of the course.
The book was chosen, I later learned, because it covered present-day uses of English and the blending of English with other languages in a way that many other books do not. I definitely appreciate this. There are many regions were English is colloquially being combined with local languages, creating interesting dialectical mixtures. It’s an important point to make, and I’m glad the instructor chose to make it. I’m just not sure that it was entirely worth the trade-off of using this book rather than covering it another way.
Overall, the book did cover a lot of information and I can see it as a useful overview and jumping off-point for additional research, especially for people who are new to linguistics — as long as the reader can avoid the impression that English’s structure somehow created its own worldwide destiny rather than being created by it. I just don’t know that I consider it a good fit as a main text for a class. I know that the third edition of The Story of English was co-authored by McCrum (in conjunction with Robert MacNeil and William Cran), and while I’m familiar with only parts of that book, it seems to give more specifics for the reader while still, it claims, covering the language up to the present day. I hope to read it more fully in the near future to get a better idea of how well it covers the current usages of the language and whether it serves as a solid main text.
For a casual reader who wants more detail about the history and more information about specific mechanics in the English language, I recommend Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language by Seth Lerer and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter (whom I have to admit to a huge intellectual crush on). Both of these books were very specific and provided explicit evidence for their reasoning, but I’ll warn you that you have to be a bit of a language geek to really get into them outside of a class. I greatly enjoyed another book I read for the same course, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchestor. It didn’t look at the language as a whole so much as at the creation of a standard in codifying the English lexicon and etymology, for which it included an engrossing personal perspective. I’m also looking into The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention by Guy Deutscher, and I can’t wait to see what he has to say.